Jacqueline Bisset’s in a heck of a fix. Her hubby Alan Alda has been seduced by promises of fame and fortune from creepy concert genius Curt Jurgens, and is responding to weird overtures from Curt’s daughter Barbara Parkins. The pianist’s mansion is stuffed with occult books, and he displays an unhealthy interest in Alda’s piano-ready hands. Do you think the innocent young couple could be in a diabolical tight spot? Nah, nothing to worry about here.
The Mephisto Waltz
KL Studio Classics
1971 / Color /1:85 widescreen / 115 min. / Street Date April 18, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Alan Alda, Jacqueline Bisset, Barbara Parkins, Brad(ford) Dillman, William Windom, Kathleen Widdoes, Pamelyn Ferdin, Curt Jurgens, Curt Lowens, Kiegh Diegh, Berry Kroeger, Walter Brooke, Frank Campanella.
Cinematography: William W. Spencer
Film Editor: Richard Brockway
Original Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Written by Ben Maddow from a novel by Fred Mustard Stewart
Produced by Quinn Martin
Directed by Paul Wendkos
Frightening music, occult symbols, fiery flames, and images of the actors engaged in Satanic rituals fill the screen for the title sequence of The Mephisto Waltz, almost making unnecessary the first forty minutes of this glossy, high-class horror offering from 20th Fox in 1971. Of the cast only Jacqueline Bisset was considered to a hot property on the way up. Barbara Parkins’ name brand hadn’t made much headway, and Alan Alda didn’t really break through with his M*A*S*H TV show until the next year. Fox gambled on director Paul Wendkos, who had a reputation as a low budget stylist. He’d spent most of his career in TV and had just come from a well-received TV movie horror called The Brotherhood of the Bell.
I remember when The Mephisto Waltz played in Westwood, at the Bruin Theater. I wasn’t in Westwood Village all that much in 1971, so I wonder if they brought it back at Christmas of 1973, when The Exorcist hit like a bomb. I also remember Mephisto getting strong coverage in early, editorially shaky issues of Cinefantastique magazine, when reviewer Dale Winogura was doing lengthy themed articles. The critic spent twenty pages praising the cinematic achievement of the not-that-impressive Planet of the Apes sequels. A long Winogura article about Paul Wendkos promoted the notion that the director was Orson Welles and Tod Browning, put together!
Coming off that fire & brimstone title sequence, any effort at subtlety in the Ben Maddow screenplay goes for naught. Music writer and failed pianist Myles Clarkson (Alan Alda) meets the legendary concert pianist Duncan Mobray (Curt Jurgens) and his mysterious daughter Roxanne Delancey (Barbara Parkins). Duncan takes great interest in Myles’s hands, which are perfect for a pianist. Myles and his wife Paula (Jacqueline Bisset) are invited into the weird social scene at Mobray’s mansion, with its wealthy guests and swinging parties. Paula’s objects in vain to Mobray’s overly solicitous behavior toward Myles, Roxanne’s generally creepy demeanor and even the pair’s vicious dog. But Duncan Mobray is dying, and Myles cuts off most of his activities to stay with the family. Myles doesn’t listen to Paula when she reports that Duncan’s library is packed with intimidating books on the occult, and that Duncan’s wife died under mysterious circumstances.
From square one we realize that The Mephisto Waltz is a re-run of themes from Roman Polanski’s superb Rosemary’s Baby, the classic of domestic paranoia and Satanism masked as eccentricity among older residents of a creepy New York apartment building. Poor Paula is left isolated as her ambitious husband is snatched away by a master Satanist with evil plans. There’s a literal hound from hell, and the emphasis on Myles’s hands reminds us of the great classic horror tale The Hands of Orlac. Instead of Tannis Root, we get some business with a plaster life mask and a perfume bottle containing a mysterious, all-purpose blue hexing liquid. Everything is far too obvious, and the nature of the evil spells is just too simple. Read the right words (in French!) and a little dab of the magic potion will result in some kind of soul transference. Mobray and his cult have apparently been walking the Earth for hundreds of years, buying themselves immortality by stealing the bodies of unsuspecting younger people. Duncan just wants the right body, one with the proper equipment so he can continue as the premier concert pianist of the modern age.
The supernatural story elements are mechanical and grim. The best thing about Rosemary’s Baby is that it’s idea of a ‘deal with the devil’ is the kind of mundane swindle of small minds — John Cassavetes’ husband will sell out everything in exchange for an acting career. By contrast, Alan Alda’s ambitious hubby is a real dope in that he doesn’t realize that his soul is going to go into the wastebasket. The fiendishly efficient Satanists proceed to sideline extraneous mortals that might gum up the works, such as Myles and Paula’s daughter Abby (Pamelyn Ferdin), and Roxanne’s ex-husband (Bradford Dillman).
Successful movies about the supernatural try to keep most of the details mysterious, although there are exceptions like the superior Curse of the Demon, which convinces despite making the summoning of a hell-demon seem as easy as scribbling some marks down on a piece of paper. The Mephisto Waltz wins our approval when Paula fights back with the Satanists’ own magic, and proves herself a real trouper. But her efforts are still unsatisfying in that she’s mainly striking back at a rival for her husband, and her husband has already proved himself a spineless jerk not worth retrieving. There’s also a major inconsistency in Paula’s logic: if Myles is no longer himself, why does Paula want him back at all? If her commitment is just to his body and the sex relationship, she isn’t all that admirable either.
The show never sorts out two major story elements. A tragic event in the Clarkson family should have a much bigger effect on Paula and Myles, but either the script or Wendkos drop the ball. Paula is barely affected, when the result ought to be a mental breakdown, or at least an instant vow of divorce. The other element is the discovery of an incestuous relationship, that comes part and parcel with the Satanist’s ‘anything is allowed’ policy of personal freedom. Considering that trouble always comes when outsiders learn anything about the magical mischief they perform, ‘keeping it in the family’ would seem a practical perversion for necromancers. Mephisto seems afraid to bring old-fashioned morality into the picture. Paula doesn’t strike back because of the crime against her family, or to smite the evil devil-worshippers, but simply to even the score and reclaim her marital partner, or at least his body. That’s a far cry from the existential dilemma of the frail Rosemary Woodhouse, facing an army of demons with just a single carving knife in her trembling hand.
If The Mephisto Waltz were better directed, it would be much more entertaining that what it is now, an early opportunity to see Jacqueline Bisset partially nude, conducting a ‘Devil Rides Out’- like ritual with a pentagram on a bare floor. Paul Wendkos establishes the Satanic society with a moving camera shot at the dinner table that just happens to catch snippets of ‘decadent’ conversation from the privileged guests. Wendkos overloads the visuals with canted angles, distorted lenses, mirror reflections and vaseline-smeared vignettes, which convey little sense of occult forces at work.
A handheld camera at the party can’t disguise the fact that the guests are ‘all dressed up’ but basically doing nothing: good old Berry Kroeger sticks his distorted face into the camera and we’re supposed to assume he’s an evil bastard. Remember Rosemary’s Baby’s coven, a sicker version of the Satanists in The Seventh Victim that seemed no more outwardly dangerous than a cozy book club? For a couple of shots at the masked ball we see partygoers wearing bird masks. Was somebody in the production of Mephisto hip enough to know about Georges Franju’s Judex? The bal masque in that movie is ten times more mysterious than what we see here.
Paula’s dream sequences are simply awful, sending her walking through foggy, cobwebby settings suitable for Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, there to be presented with the secrets of the evil conspiracy. The unimaginative visualizations only point us back to the Polanski movie, where Rosemary dreams creepy surreal visions that connect with basic fears. If you haven’t seen Rosemary’s Baby in a long time it’s worth another visit. It’s even scarier now.
Jerry Goldsmith’s score attempts to compensate for the film’s weaknesses with overpowering blasts of music, riffing off of Liszt’s title composition and the grim dirge Dies Irae. We’re more accustomed to Goldsmith surprising us with subtle underscoring, but here he was obliged to put his thunderous cues right up front.
Jacqueline Bisset is excellent, never losing our sympathy even as the script makes her Paula look like a dummy. Actually, she does come off badly when she is shown vandalizing a reference copy of an old newspaper . . . a generic scene librarians hate. Alan Alda does some okay fake piano moves, but the idea that he’s a sexual dynamo seems laughable — everything about Alda’s screen image at this time said ‘wet noodle.’ It’s not a good movie for him. Left out of the fun is supporting actress Kathleen Widdoes, Paula’s best buddy on the sidelines. Paula’s predicament is too crazy to involve her or the doctor played by a confused William Windom, while fourth-billed Bradford Dillman’s character barely leaves an impression before making an unexpected exit.
Barbara Parkins is okay as a rather transparent schemer, but the story asks us to read generations of malice into her staring, disconnected eyes. For once Curt Jurgens is well cast; he’s effortlessly imposing and intimidating, and wholly believable as a master musician. Unfortunately, in movies like this, talent and artistic achievement are often characterized as evil — Duncan Mobray is a musical genius because he’s had centuries to practice. The screenplay does give him one inspired line, when he complains that life is organized all wrong, that we should be born at age seventy and grow younger, like Benjamin Button. That is the kind of remark one might expect from an immortal weary of hijacking a new identity every half century.
So what happened to the souls of Myles and Roxanne? With Mephisto’s general lack of a sense of humor, I found myself fantasizing an additional scene showing the two of them reduced to smoke inside a pair of perfume bottles, sitting on a mantelpiece, as in René Clair’s I Married a Witch: “For tonight I’ll merry merry be, for tonight I’ll merry merry be . . .”
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Mephisto Waltz is a good scan of this upscale creepshow from a year when 20th Fox was in dire straits, with production reduced to a trickle. It seems to have been chosen for its promise as a ‘can’t miss’ project, and even though it wasn’t reviewed well, it played forever, getting bookings every time a new ghost story needed a co-feature.
The transfer does have issues, as several scenes have visual flaws that I associate (in older technologies) with poor elements being strained to get a good exposure. Blacks break up with what almost looks like digital snow. Perhaps some of the restoration had to be done from dupe elements? I can see the problem but am no longer able to diagnose it with certainty. It’s fairly subtle and only lasts for a few seconds in one or two scenes, but it is momentarily distracting.
Elsewhere the show looks fine (except for those klunky dream sequences), with Ms. Bisset’s beautiful face sufficient reason to give the movie a go. The brief nudity involved is tasteful as well. Jerry Goldsmith’s bombastic music gets a good workout on what I think is a mono soundtrack — no specific audio configuration is claimed.
Kino has been generous with commentaries in the last couple of years, adding interest for fans that already know the movies well. Horror expert Bill Cooke is a longtime contributor to Video Watchdog and proves his mettle with an excellent commentary that pokes into every corner of the production, including the film’s source book and the precarious situation 20th Fox was in when the film was being shot. Cooke examines the actors, the score and the film’s supernatural content with a fair hand. A second track gives us Elijah Drenner, a major supplier of featurettes for genre films, interviewing Pamelyn Ferdin, the film’s child actress. She of course has much more to say than just anecdotes about The Mephisto Waltz; Kino’s willingness to float more than one commentary is a great idea because the extra discussion is about more than just the movie. How many cult films have three commentaries, with duplicated personnel telling the same stories?
The show finishes with trailers for several discs offered by KL Studio Classics. In the last few seasons two or three disc boutiques have gobbled up a huge number of genre titles available for license from studio libraries. When will these companies run out of promotable product?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Mephisto Waltz Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good – Minus
Video: Very Good
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 7, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson